For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Top Ten Ways the US Enabled Saddam Hussein
The old monster swung from the gallows this morning at 6 am Baghdad time. His Shiite executioners danced around his body.
Saddam Hussain was one of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants, though the death toll he racked up is probably exaggerated by his critics. The reality was bad enough.
The tendency to treat Saddam and Iraq in a historical vacuum, and in isolation from the superpowers, however, has hidden from Americans their own culpability in the horror show that has been Iraq for the past few decades. Initially, the US used the Baath Party as a nationalist foil to the Communists. Then Washington used it against Iran. The welfare of Iraqis themselves appears to have been on no one’s mind, either in Washington or in Baghdad.
The British-installed monarchy was overthrown by an officer’s coup in 1958, led by Abdul Karim Qasim. The US was extremely upset, and worried that the new regime would not be a reliable oil exporter and that it might leave the Baghdad Pact of 1955, which the US had put together against the Soviet Union (grouping Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Britain and the US). (Qasim did leave the pact in 1959, which according to a US official of that time, deeply alarmed Washington.)
Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s had become an extremely unequal society, with a few thousand (mostly Sunni Arab) families owning half of the good land. On their vast haciendas, poor rural Shiites worked for a pittance. In the 1950s, two new mass parties grew like wildfire, the Communist Party of Iraq and the Arab Baath Socialist Party. They attracted first-generation intellectuals, graduates of the rapidly expanding school system, as well as workers and peasants. The crushing inequalities of Iraq under the monarchy produced widespread anger.
Qasim undertook land reform and founded a new section of Baghdad, in the northeast, which he called Revolution Township, where rural Shiites congregated as they came to the capital seeking work as day laborers (it is now Sadr City, where a majority of Baghdadis live). The US power elite of the time wrongly perceived Qasim as a dangerous radical who coddled the Communists.
1) The first time the US enabled Saddam Hussein came in 1959. In that year, a young Saddam, from the boondock town of Tikrit but living with an uncle in Baghdad, tried to assassinate Qasim. He failed and was wounded in the leg. Saddam had, like many in his generation, joined the Baath Party, which combined socialism, Arab nationalism, and the aspiration for a one-party state.
In 1959, Richard Sale of UPI reports,
‘ According to another former senior State Department official, Saddam, while only in his early 20s, became a part of a U.S. plot to get rid of Qasim. According to this source, Saddam was installed in an apartment in Baghdad on al-Rashid Street directly opposite Qasim’s office in Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, to observe Qasim’s movements.
Adel Darwish, Middle East expert and author of “Unholy Babylon,” said the move was done “with full knowledge of the CIA,” and that Saddam’s CIA handler was an Iraqi dentist working for CIA and Egyptian intelligence. U.S. officials separately confirmed Darwish’s account.’
CIA involvement in the 1959 assassination attempt is plausible. Historian David Wise says there is evidence in the US archives that the CIA’s “Health Alteration Committee” tried again to have Qasim assassinated in 1960 by “sending the Iraqi leader a poisoned monogrammed handkerchief.”
2) After the failed coup attempt, Saddam fled to Cairo, where he attended law school in between bar brawls, and where it is alleged that he retained his CIA connections there, being put on a stipend by the agency via the Egyptian government. He frequently visited US operatives at the Indiana Cafe. Getting him back on his feet in Cairo was the second episode of US aid to Saddam.
3) In February of 1963 the military wing of the Baath Party, which had infiltrated the officer corps and military academy, made a coup against Qasim, whom they killed. There is evidence from Middle Eastern sources, including interviews conducted at the time by historian Hanna Batatu, that the CIA cooperated in this coup and gave the Baathists lists of Iraqi Communists (who were covert, having infiltrated the government or firms). Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer of the 1960s, alleged that the US played a significant role in this Baath coup and that it was mostly funded “with American money.”. Morris’s allegation was confirmed to me by an eyewitness with intimate knowledge of the situation, who said that that the CIA station chief in Baghdad gave support to the Baathists in their coup. One other interviewee, who served as a CIA operative in Baghdad in 1964, denied to me the agency’s involvement. But he was at the time junior and he was not an eyewitness to the events of 1963, and may not have been told the straight scoop by his colleagues. Note that some high Baathists appear to have been unaware of the CIA involvement, as well. In the murky world of tradecraft, a lot of people, even on the same team, keep each other in the dark. UPI quotes another, or perhaps the same, official, saying that the coup came as a surprise to Langley. In my view, unlikely.
There really is not any controversy about the US having supplied the names of Communists to the Baath, which rooted them out and killed them. Saddam Hussein was brought back from Cairo as an interrogator and quickly rose to become head of Baath Intelligence. So that was his first partnership with the US.*
The 1963 Baath government only lasted 8 months, and was overthrown by officers who had been around Qasim. The military wing of the Baath, which was heavily Shiite, was relentlessly pursued by the new government, and was virtually wiped out. The largely Sunni civilian party, however, survived underground.
4) In 1968, the civilian wing of the Baath Party came to power in a second coup. David Morgan of Reuters wrote,
‘ “In 1968, Morris says, the CIA encouraged a palace revolt among Baath party elements led by long-time Saddam mentor Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who would turn over the reins of power to his ambitious protégé in 1979. “It’s a regime that was unquestionably midwived by the United States, and the (CIA’s) involvement there was really primary,” Morris says. ‘
As I noted in The Nation, in their book Unholy Babylon, “Darwish and Alexander report assertions of US backing for the 1968 coup, confirmed to me by other journalists who have talked to retired CIA and State Department officials.” It was alleged to me by one journalist who had talked to former US government officials with knowledge of this issue that not only did the US support the 1968 Baath coup, but it specifically promoted the Tikritis among the coup-makers, helping them become dominant. These included President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his cousin Saddam Hussein, who quickly became a power behind the throne.
5) The second Baath regime in Iraq disappointed the Nixon and Ford administrations by reaching out to the tiny remnants of the Communist Party and by developing good relations with the Soviet Union. In response, Nixon supported the Shah’s Iran in its attempts to use the Iraqi Kurds to stir up trouble for the Baath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was a behind the scenes leader. As supporting the Kurdish struggle became increasingly expensive, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlevi of Iran decided to abandon the Kurds. He made a deal with the Iraqis at Algiers in 1975, and Saddam immediately ordered an invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan. The US acquiesced in this betrayal of the Kurds, and made no effort to help them monetarily. Kissinger maintained that the whole operation had been the shah’s, and the shah suddenly terminated it, leaving the US with no alternative but to acquiesce. But that is not entirely plausible. The operation was supported by the CIA, and the US didn’t have to act only through an Iranian surrogate. Kissinger no doubt feared he couldn’t get Congress to fund help to the Kurds during the beginnings of the Vietnam syndrome. In any case, the 1975 US about-face helped Saddam consolidate control over northern Iraq.
6) When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, he again caught the notice of US officials. The US was engaged in an attempt to contain Khomeinism and the new Islamic Republic. Especially after the US faced attacks from radicalized Shiites in Lebanon linked to Iran, and from the Iraqi Da`wa Party, which engaged in terrorism against the US and French embassies in Kuwait, the Reagan administration determined to deal with Saddam from late 1983, giving him important diplomatic encouragement. Historians are deeply indebted to Joyce Battle’s Briefing Book at the National Security Archives, GWU, which presents key documents she sprung through FOIA requests, and which she analyzed for the first time.
I wrote on another occasion,
‘ Reagan sent Rumsfeld to Baghdad in December 1983. The National Security Archive has posted a brief video of his meeting with Hussein and the latter’s vice president and foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Rumsfeld was to stress his close relationship with the U.S. president. The State Department summary of Rumsfeld’s meeting with Tariq Aziz stated that “the two agreed the U.S. and Iraq shared many common interests: peace in the Gulf, keeping Syria and Iran off balance and less influential, and promoting Egypt’s reintegration into the Arab world.” Aziz asked Rumsfeld to intervene with Washington’s friends to get them to stop selling arms to Iran. Increasing Iraq’s oil exports and a possible pipeline through Saudi Arabia occupied a portion of their conversation.
. . . The State Department, however, issued a press statement on March 5, 1984, condemning Iraqi use of chemical weapons. This statement appears to have been Washington’s way of doing penance for its new alliance.
Unaware of the depths of Reagan administration hypocrisy on the issue, Hussein took the March 5 State Department condemnation extremely seriously, and appears to have suspected that the United States was planning to stab him in the back. Secretary of State George Shultz notes in a briefing for Rumsfeld in spring of 1984 that the Iraqis were extremely confused by concrete U.S. policies . . . “As with our CW statement, their temptation is to give up rational analysis and retreat to the line that US policies are basically anti-Arab and hostage to the desires of Israel.”
Rumsfeld had to be sent back to Baghdad for a second meeting, to smooth ruffled Baath feathers. The above-mentioned State Department briefing notes for this discussion remarked that the atmosphere in Baghdad (for Rumsfeld) had worsened . . . the March 5 scolding of Iraq for its use of poison gas had “sharply set back” relations between the two countries.
The relationship was repaired, but on Hussein’s terms. He continued to use chemical weapons and, indeed, vastly expanded their use as Washington winked at Western pharmaceutical firms providing him materiel. The only conclusion one can draw from available evidence is that Rumsfeld was more or less dispatched to mollify Hussein and assure him that his use of chemical weapons was no bar to developing the relationship with the U.S., whatever the State Department spokesman was sent out to say. ‘
7) The US gave
practical help to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War:
‘ As former National Security Council staffer Howard Teicher affirmed, “Pursuant to the secret NSDD [National Security Directive], the United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing US military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required.” The requisite weaponry included cluster bombs. . . ‘
Richard Sale of UPI also reported that military cooperation intensified:
‘ During the war, the CIA regularly sent a team to Saddam to deliver battlefield intelligence obtained from Saudi AWACS surveillance aircraft to aid the effectiveness of Iraq’s armed forces, according to a former DIA official, part of a U.S. interagency intelligence group. . .
According to Darwish, the CIA and DIA provided military assistance to Saddam’s ferocious February 1988 assault on Iranian positions in the al-Fao peninsula by blinding Iranian radars for three days. ‘
8) The Reagan administration worked behind the scenes to foil Iran’s motion of censure against Iraq for using chemical weapons. I wrote at Truthdig:
‘ The new American alliance might have been a public relations debacle if Iran succeeded in its 1984 attempt to have Iraq directly condemned at the United Nations for use of chemical weapons. As far as possible, Shultz wanted to weasel out of joining such a U.N. condemnation of Iraq. He wrote in a cable that the U.S. delegation to the U.N. “should work to develop general Western position in support of a motion to take ‘no decision’ on Iranian draft resolution on use of chemical weapons by Iraq. If such a motion gets reasonable and broad support and sponsorship, USDEL should vote in favor. Failing Western support for ‘no decision,’ USDEL should abstain.” Shultz in the first instance wanted to protect Hussein from condemnation by a motion of “no decision,” and hoped to get U.S. allies aboard. If that ploy failed and Iraq were to be castigated, he ordered that the U.S. just abstain from the vote. Despite its treaty obligations in this regard, the U.S. was not even to so much as vote for a U.N. resolution on the subject!
Shultz also wanted to throw up smokescreens to take the edge off the Iranian motion, arguing that the U.N. Human Rights Commission was “an inappropriate forum” for consideration of chemical weapons, and stressing that loss of life owing to Iraq’s use of chemicals was “only a part” of the carnage that ensued from a deplorable war. A more lukewarm approach to chemical weapons use by a rogue regime (which referred to the weapons as an “insecticide” for enemy “insects”) could not be imagined. In the end, the U.N. resolution condemned the use of chemical weapons but did not name Iraq directly as a perpetrator. ‘
9) The Reagan administration not only gave significant aid to Saddam, it attempted to recruit other friends for him.
‘ Teicher adds that the CIA had knowledge of, and U.S. officials encouraged, the provisioning of Iraq with high-powered weaponry by U.S. allies. He adds: “For example, in 1984, the Israelis concluded that Iran was more dangerous than Iraq to Israel’s existence due to the growing Iranian influence and presence in Lebanon. The Israelis approached the United States in a meeting in Jerusalem that I attended with Donald Rumsfeld. Israeli Foreign Minister Ytizhak Shamir asked Rumsfeld if the United States would deliver a secret offer of Israeli assistance to Iraq. The United States agreed. I traveled with Rumsfeld to Baghdad and was present at the meeting in which Rumsfeld told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz about Israel’s offer of assistance. Aziz refused even to accept the Israelis’ letter to Hussein.” It might have been hoped that a country that arose in part in response to Nazi uses of poison gas would have been more sensitive about attempting to ally with a regime then actively deploying such a weapon, even against its own people (some gassing of Kurds had already begun). ‘
10) After the Gulf War of 1991, when Shiites and Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein, the Bush senior administration sat back and allowed the Baathists to fly helicopter gunships and to massively repress the uprising. President GHW Bush had called on Iraqis to rise up against their dictator, but when they did so he left them in the lurch. This inaction, deriving from a fear that a Shiite-dominated Iraq would ally with Tehran, allowed Saddam to remain in power until 2003.
Readers of this column may also enjoy Eric Blumrich’s Flash slideshow.
*The account in 1-3 above was challenged once I put it up by two retired US government officials who had positions of responsibility in the Middle East in this period. The alternative account of one of them is here.
Against this insider account must be put the evidence of a memo by Robert Komer at the National Security Council dated the day of the 1963 coup that clearly demonstrates that he had foreknowledge of it, and in which he commends a US agency (it is blacked out) for good penetration of the Baath Party. Komer’s memo does not demonstrate that the US made the coup, but it does challenge the idea put forward by my informant above that it came as a surprise to the US government. Nathan Citino and Bill Zeman have discussed this memo in their academic writing. Roger Morris wrote me to say that he had seen national security documents proving US involvement in the 1963 coup.